When the call came from Mel Tucker, there wasn’t much hesitation from Scottie Hazelton.
Tucker, who had just become Michigan State’s head coach after taking over for Mark Dantonio, was looking for a defensive coordinator and wanted to know if Hazelton, who served in the same role at Kansas State in 2019, was interested.
“Of course I was,” Hazelton recalled this week while speaking with reporters on a conference call.
To Hazelton, it was an easy answer. He knew Tucker to be an outstanding defensive coach in his own right, and the fact Michigan State had developed into one of the best defensive teams in the country under Dantonio also meant a stockpile of players that understood how to play defense.
“There’s lots of different reasons why Michigan State would draw a person,” Hazelton said. “First of all Coach Tucker. Everybody that knows him says great things about him. He’s a great defensive mind and you can learn a lot of ball from him. I think that’s the first thing that you say, ‘OK, that draws you to it, being in a good working relationship with a guy that knows and understands defense.’ It’s like having another assistant coach on staff that you can pick their brains. He’s been a coordinator everywhere so it’s even better than that a lot of times.
“The second thing when he started talking to me about it, as a football coach, you track who’s good and who’s doing what. Michigan State has always been great on defense and that’s one of the things that, as you go around and you meet kids and see what their pedigree is and their background, you know that these guys are guys that run to the ball and just try to do it right.”
Hazelton understands plenty about doing it right.
Last season at Kansas State, his first with the program after two years at Wyoming and three with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Hazelton led a defensive revival. The Wildcats ranked first in the Big 12 and second in the nation in third-down defense after ranking eighth in the conference and 110th in the nation the previous season.
Overall, Kansas State was second in the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing 21.4 points a game, and was second in the conference in pass defense, giving up 202.9 yards a game.
Those are the sort of numbers that attracted Tucker to Hazelton, a coach who has worked at nearly every level of the game over the last 24 years during a career that began at his alma mater, Fort Lewis College, back in 1996.
“I’ve been in Division III and in the NFL and the cool thing is, it’s all ball,” Hazelton said. “You learn different tricks through different guys and you play teams that were better than you and you play teams that weren’t as good as you with the skill of the athletes you had on the field. I think that’s the learning level that made me and my style mine.”
Hazelton wanted to be sure that style meshed with the staff Tucker had already assembled, namely Dantonio holdovers Mike Tressel and Ron Burton, as well as defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett. Tressel was the defensive coordinator the past two seasons for the Spartans and shared those duties with Barnett for three seasons before that.
Along with special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Ross Els, Hazelton said it didn’t take long to realize the wealth of knowledge in the coaching room was going to be a positive.
“They’re great people first, which is nice because there’s a lot of good knowledge of football and there’s a lot of wisdom in that room and we can bounce ideas off each other,” Hazelton said. “And the really cool thing is, I think we’re all humble enough that we might say, ‘Oh that was a really good point, or oh, that worked well.’ And so you can take the best of whatever everybody’s saying and hopefully you can make it stronger than it’s been for all of us. … It’s really kind of cool because it’s like having an offseason clinic, except you are at work and you’re doing it right now and you’re building your defense. It’s kind of cool.”
Regarding the staff breakdown, Hazelton said he’ll help Burton on the defensive line, focusing primarily with the ends when he can. Els will oversee the linebackers in addition to being the special teams coordinator.
That led to using Tressel's and Barnett’s history together to tackle the back end of the defense -- Tressel with safeties and Barnett with cornerbacks.
“Tressel has a ton of experience all over the place,” Hazelton said. “He’s been a coordinator, he’s been a walk-around guy, he’s been a linebacker coach and he’s coached safeties. Some of it was, him and Harlon have a very good working relationship, and those two guys taking the back-end together. We as a staff felt that was a good transition for everybody.”
What the defense will look like when Michigan State eventually gets back on the field is something else being worked on while the coaches and players meet virtually as opposed to in person. Tucker used a variation of a 3-4 defense at Colorado while Hazleton used more four-man fronts last season at Kansas State with five defensive backs and two linebackers.
Michigan State played mostly 4-3 under Dantonio and has recruited to that style, something Hazelton pointed out this week. Regardless of scheme, though, Hazelton is focused more on the mindset of his defensive players.
“The overriding philosophy is really about how the players can play,” Hazelton said. “Do what they’re good at, try to use their skills in a way that is going to showcase what they’re very good at, and really it’s about getting the guys to play as hard as they can.
“When guys are playing hard and they are running they are going to cover up for each other. When they’re relentless getting to the ball and doing all those things, you can be four down, three down, cover one, cover two, it really doesn’t matter. … They’re gonna play faster and you get them playing where they’re excited for each other and they’re having fun. We know football’s an emotional game and when you can get on that roller coaster, it’ll be fun.”